“This obituary is partially based on Alex’s essay and partially on the memoirs that Yury wrote a few years back and my poetic license. He was a special man with a huge heart and love for all of us.
Dr. Yury Polotsky, MD, PhD, born in 1938 in Leningrad, the USSR, has passed away on Sunday night in Denver, surrounded in person and virtually by his loving children and grandchildren. He was credited with the discovery of the ETEC subtype of Escherichia coli, a leading cause of GI infections during the HIV epidemic. The funeral will take place at Temple Emanuel Cemetery at Fairmount on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 2:45pm.
Like many in his generation, Yury experienced a life full of ups and downs. As a 4-year-old, during WWII’s infamous Siege of Leningrad, he was evacuated to the Ural Mountains, where he spent hungry and cold years from 1941 to 1944. He bounced in and out of orphanages while his parents, both physicians, supported the war effort. “I remember our most delicious food – potato peel pancakes fried in sunflower oil”, he wrote in his memoir. His father was wounded and awarded multiple military decorations.
After WWII, life seemingly returned to normal or as normal as it could be under Stalin’s rule. Yury’s mom went back to work as an internist. His father became in charge of the Central Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a leading healthcare center in the Soviet Union. His career was cut abruptly short during Stalin’s Doctors Plot 1951-1953 when Jewish physicians were declared “Enemies of the State” with many of them arrested and executed. Yury’s father “got off easy” – he only lost his job, never recovering professionally.
Not unlike his father, Yury had spent most of his adult life in Russia fighting with the state-sponsored anti-Semitism, which he felt acutely in academia. In 1979, Yury experienced the biggest crisis of his professional career. He was employed as a research pathologist at one of the major centers of biomedical research in Russia. The head of the Department was going to retire in a year, and Yury was a shoo-in to take his job. However, it was not meant to be as the two Jewish associates at Yury’s Department applied for permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union, which generated an outburst of racial hatred and an ugly anti-Semitic campaign. When it was all over, Yury lost his job and was unable to find a position suitable to his qualifications because he happened to be Jewish too.
In the 1980s, the Soviet regime tightened emigration regulations and made it virtually impossible for Jews to leave the country. Having his career crushed and unable to get out of Russia, Yury took a low-paying job as a Research Technician, which he was enormously over-qualified for. Though devastated and humiliated, he never let his spirits down. Despite the obstacles, he persevered. Dedicated to medicine and science, he rebuilt his career, achieving spectacular results. He worked his way up the institutional ladder again, and in 1984 he successfully defended his thesis for a Doctor of Science degree in Anatomic Pathology. He became a head of a laboratory at the Leningrad Pasteur Institute and a principal investigator for the many projects that his team was working on.
His dedication to research and the genuine interest he took in his work have greatly inspired and influenced his sons, who have followed in his steps to pursue research careers in academic medicine.
In December 1991, Yury was able to leave the Soviet Union. He took a job as a Senior Research Associate at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D. C. His children witnessed how their fifty-three-year-old father struggled to improve his English and get used to a new culture.
Two months after arriving in the US, Yury developed unstable angina and underwent coronary bypass surgery. One after another, life-threatening complications of open-heart surgery reared its ugly head. Completely disabled for two months, he was not sure if he will live or die. Fortunately, he recovered and went on to do research and publish for ten more years in his new country. He was awarded the green card for his distinguished scientific career.
Working hard to achieve his career goals, Yury has never forgotten the importance of his family. Yury and his wife Anna, who was also a pathologist in Russia, made sure that their children could get the best education possible. His son, Dr. Seva Polotsky, became a sleep researcher and Professor of Medicine at John Hopkins. His son, Dr. Alex Polotsky, became a reproductive medicine physician and Professor of Ob/Gyn at the University of Colorado. Yury’s influence had a profound impact on his sons and his family. His family succeeded in the US beyond his wildest dreams. This is his contribution to American society as a way of saying “thank you” for providing Russian Jews a safe and welcoming home.
Yury lived the last few years of his life with his Denver children and grandchildren, who lead an observant Jewish life. No matter how much Soviets tried to eradicate the Jewish religion, here he was every Friday and Saturday surrounded by his five grandchildren celebrating Shabbos. He had the last laugh. Everyone in the community who came to attend numerous Polotsky meals knew where “Deda Yura” was sitting. His empty chair at our dining room table is a reminder of what is lost and how lucky we were to have him in our lives.
Dr. Yury Polotsky was pre-deceased by his wife Dr. Anna Polotsky. He is survived by his children Seva (Anna) Polotsky of Baltimore, Md., and Alex (Hanah) Polotsky of Denver; grandchildren Mikhael, Esti, Avi, Yael, Rachel, Eli, and Yoshi and great-granddaughter Cecilia Kate. Contributions may be made to the Denver Academy of Torah. https://denveracademyoftorah.factsmgtadmin.com/give